HELL OR HIGH WATER (2016) was a surprise joy for me, providing a compelling story that defies the usual crime movie tropes and shows small town America in a gritty but non-patronizing way. It’s been compared to NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN, but for me it’s more Elmore Leonard than Cormac McCarthy.
Starring Chris Pine in a subdued role where he can show off some real acting, as well as Jeff Bridges at his Jeff Bridges best, the movie is about two brothers robbing a string of banks in small towns in rural Texas. They seem like amateur crooks, which they are because they’re only doing it because they need the money for a specific purpose, which is to save their ranch, and while they may be amateurs, they’re far more clever in their technique than they seem to be. Jeff Bridges plays a Texas ranger who glimpses the truth behind the crimes and is hot on the brothers’ trail. All three men were what they were their whole lives up until this point, but they’re on a special mission now, and they are going to risk everything for it. The movie delivers clear stakes that include redemption for the brothers and one last big win for the ranger before he enters the frightening idleness of retirement.
The setting is as compelling as the story, taking place in a part of Texas where if you rob a bank, the customers are likely to be carrying more guns than the guards. The locals are handled perfectly, big talkers and gun toters but without the usual positive or negative patronizing. The result is a very deep suspension of disbelief in a perfectly rendered small-town America in which people struggle to get by, in which the banks are foreclosing on thousands of failing homes and farms. This background conflict brings a Robin Hood aspect to the brothers’ mission, a poetic justice that they’re sticking it to the bank that’s sticking it to their family. The story builds to a powerful and realistic climax and, for me, ended on a perfect note.
Overall, I went into it expecting big drama with a side of sap but got an intelligent story about taking a personal stand based on love or loyalty, and risking everything for it.